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An Introduction to Sustainable Energy Systems

 
As individuals, we most often focus upon a single energy technology: One we particularly like (e.g., solar or wind), or one we particularly dislike (e.g., fossil fuel or nuclear).

And then we all start arguing.

At Bell Labs I researched semiconductor devices for fiber optic communications. These were kissing cousins to solar cells, and I got to know a lot of people in the solar cell field (including the founders of two U.S. solar energy companies). So, naturally, for me, that "single energy technology" was solar cells. But for years, my friends told me that "when the cost of cells falls below $X.YZ / Watt, they will take over the world!" And then they fell below that cost. And they did not take over the world. I was clearly missing something. So I began reading almost every article, paper and book on energy I could find. And I eventually figured out what I'd missed: Sustainable energy is not just about the component technologies, it's about how they fit together to create a complete energy system. Put another way, the individual technologies are only pieces of a much larger puzzle. And, frustratingly, many of those pieces still have shapes that are blurred, ill-defined, and/or changing with time.

But why not build an energy system based on just one "piece," for instance solar cells? Because, for now, no single "piece" can affordably produce the amount of energy we need, when we need it. To illustrate, say that solar cell efficiencies suddenly skyrocketed, and costs plummeted. Wouldn't that make an all-solar energy system possible? Yes, but only if you were willing to spend your evenings in the dark, either shivering or sweating. The problem? Solar cells require intense sunlight to produce energy, which only happens (with luck) near midday. But our power consumption peaks in the evenings. So for a solar-based energy system to work, we would also need an effective and affordable way of storing huge quantities of midday energy for many hours - a technology "piece" we do not yet have. Or, if you lived on the U.S. east coast, you might tap into solar cells on the west coast, where the solar peak comes three hours later. But this would require another missing technological piece: efficient and affordable long-distance power transmission lines. So, even with miraculously improved solar cells, we would still need other (miraculously improved) pieces to build an energy system. And without such miracles, it's more likely that we will need many different energy-producing pieces, and many different complementary energy storage/transmission/ . . . pieces.

In my class, and now through this website, we'll examine the science and technology behind those energy "pieces," trying to define at least their present day shapes. But the real goal will be to then use that knowledge to figure out how those pieces might someday complete the "puzzle" of a truly sustainable energy system.

 

Web Notes vs. Class Notes?

For my university class, lectures had to be of fixed length and number. That meant that I had to continuously edit and rearrange things as I added new material to the class. On the other hand, because my students were responsible for all class material, the exact order of presentation was not critical. Which freed me to enhance learning by revisiting critical topics multiple times, treating them in increasing depth, weaving them together with related topics.

But this new website is intended as an online resource for you, the citizen-researcher. And you will likely arrive here searching for information on a single specific energy topic. I hope to lure you into broader study. But to facilitate your immediate research, I am rewriting my class notes into what I will call "web notes." For these web notes:

- Material is reordered so that single topics are largely covered in a single place (a single web note set, or consecutive sets).

- Web note sets are of whatever length their topic naturally demands.

- However, because some topics (e.g., different energy technologies) share the same issue, discussion of that issue may be repeated in multiple web note sets.

- Web note listings (immediately below) incorporate a drop down outline of each note set.

- Web note PowerPoint files also begin with a full outline.

- A companion Resources Webpage is provided for each web note set. On it I post any videos used in the note set, along with any particularly noteworthy figures.

- The companion Resources Webpage also provides full citations to articles and papers I found particularly useful in preparing that note set. Links are also given (and, where possible, a cached copy is provided).

 

One year after creating WeCanFigureThisOut.org in the August of 2017, I am about two thirds through this process of expanding my earlier class notes into web notes.

I welcome any comments you have on the note sets I have completed. I also welcome your input on any topics or questions you would like me to deal with in future note sets. (My current plans are given in grayed-out titles and drop-down outlines).

Please send your suggestions to me via this website's CONTACT WEBPAGE.

 

STRONGLY
Recommended Textbook:
  Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air
David J.C. MacKay
Downloadable for free at: Without the Hot Air.com
Or as a paperback from: UIT Cambridge England, ISBN 978-0-9544529-3-3
 

 




 

Web Note Sets + Resource Webpages

Background:

 My Personal Introduction to Sustainable Energy - Updated Sept 2018

How and why I became interested / How I learned that full energy systems are almost always required

 U.S. Energy Production and Consumption (resources webpage) - Expanded Nov 2017

Show/Hide Outline

Typical household consumption / Total U.S. electrical power production
How this has (or has not) been changing
        The still surprisingly small role of renewables in the U.S.
How states differ in the ways they produce energy
How our consumption varies during the day
        The surprising importance of residential consumption => Follow the money heat!
Worldwide data and maps of per-capita power consumption

Electricity - Underlying Science & Generic Systems:

 The Science of Electricity: What it is / How it's generated / How we now try to transmit it

Part I: Electric & Magnetic Fields (resources webpage, with a dozen video demonstrations) - New Jan 2018

Show/Hide Outline

Teaching "E & M" by memorizing equations vs. watching things happen
Our personal experiences with electric fields / The experiences of one British schoolmaster
        Electric charge: Two canceling types, attractive to each other, repulsive to themselves
        Electric Fields: An abstract way of mapping out the forces between electric charges
Magnetic Fields: Metal filing trails that are NOT force maps
        How such non-force-maps can nevertheless explain the forces between magnets
Electro-Magnetism: How charges (driven by Electric Fields) can generate Magnetic Fields
The gravity-defying fall of magnets through non-magnetic metal pipes
        Explained by Magnetic Induction = Propulsion of electrons by passing Magnetic Fields
        => Causing their Electro-Magnetism to create an opposing Magnetic Field
Explaining (eventually) metal recycling, maglev trains, electric generators, electric motors . . .

Part II: Magnetic Induction: Motors, Generators & Transformers (resources webpage) - New Jan 2018

Show/Hide Outline

A review of electric & magnetic fields (drawn from preceding note set)
Magnetic-field-sucking "ferromagnetic materials" => Magnetic field directing "Pole Pieces"
The surprisingly straight-forward inner working of electric motors
        DC motors that switch "rotor" magnetization via "split ring" electrical contacts
        Even simpler AC motors
Increasing and smoothing out a motor's torque by adding multiple electro-magnet pairs
Nikola Tesla's clever "brushless" induction motor alternative
        Which, flattened out, now provides the basis for ultrahigh speed "maglev" trains
How the two adjacent coils of "transformers" allow one to transform AC power
        Optimizing Voltage x Current choices for either long distance power transmission
        Or for the myriad voltages now required for the most efficient & safe use of power

 A Generic Power Plant and Grid (resources webpage) - Rewritten & Expanded Feb 2018

Show/Hide Outline

Most power plants = Heat source + boiling water kettle + propeller + generator
        Including coal, nuclear, biomass/biofuel, and one type of natural gas (CCGT)
                Hydro and wind plants omit the heat source & kettle
                        But photovoltaic power plants (alone) are completely different
Our demand for their power is very cyclic = Base Power + Dispatchable Power
        Massive steam plants cannot efficiently meet this cycle (only hydropower can)
                And only one type of natural gas plant (OCGT) can deal well with its 2-3 hour peak
Combining many power plants into a grid requires scrupulous synchronization
        And even that falls apart if one tries to transmit AC power over long distances
                Where the peaks in current and peaks in voltage cease to track one another
Which, accelerated by green energy, is pushing us toward high voltage DC power transmission
        As enabled by transformers + diodes + capacitors

Energy Technologies:

 Power from Carbon:

Part I: Fossil Fuels (resources webpage) - Updated Sept 2018

Far and away the biggest provider of U.S. electricity (64.8% of total 2016 electricity*)

Show/Hide Outline

The difficulty in figuring out exactly what fossil fuels are
        Because their separation from petroleum is neither simple nor specific
How we now use fossil fuels
        Including transportation's addiction to their stunningly high "energy densities"
Identifying the fossil fuels releasing the most combustion heat per amount of CO2 liberated
Identifying the power plant technologies best at converting that heat into electricity:
        For coal: "Conventional" vs. "Ultra-supercritical" vs. "IGCC" power plants
        For natural gas: Single turbine "OCGT" vs. Dual Turbine "CCGT" power plants
The environmental impacts of fossil fuel extraction, including:
        Coal mining vs. strip mining vs. mountaintop removal
        Fracking's use of unmonitored chemicals, their "disposal" and role in earthquakes
                And the subsequent accidental/negligent release of greenhouse bad guy, methane

Part II: Biomass and Biofuels (resources webpage) - Updated Sept 2018

The #4 low-carbon-footprint provider (biomass) of U.S. electricity (1.6% of total 2016 electricity*)

Show/Hide Outline

Biomass vs. Biofuels - The difference between them / Their modification of the Carbon Cycle Biomass and its sustainability:
         The leading energy contributors: Sawdust, agricultural waste & manure
         The up-and-coming contributors: Municipal solid waste to energy & landfill gas to energy
The synthesis of Biofuels via: Predigestion + Fermentation + Distillation
Analysis of five key issues confronting biofuel growth, synthesis and use:
         - Lifetime energy return on energy invested (EROI)
         - Net greenhouse gas impact
         - Land use and fertilizer pollution
         - Consumption of fresh water
         - Effect upon U.S. and world food prices

 Hydroelectric Power (resources webpage) - Expanded August 2018

The #2 low-carbon-footprint provider of U.S. electricity (6.3% of total 2016 electricity*)

Show/Hide Outline

The Science of Hydropower
Common Hydropower: Conventional & Run of the River
         Less Common Hydropower: Pumped Storage Hydro & Tidal Barrage or Lagoon
Today's U.S. hydropower
Limits of Hydropower / Objections to Hydropower
         Drought & Climate Change
         Carbon Footprint of Concrete
         Disruption of Fish Migrations
         Impact on Rainforests and Tropical River Deltas
         Possible Liberation of Soil Mercury
Alternate visions of tomorrow's hydropower:
         U.S. Department of Energy vs. the Nature Conservancy

 Wind Power

The #3 low-carbon-footprint provider of U.S. electricity (5.6% of total 2016 electricity*)

Wind Power - Part I (resources webpage) - New August 2018

Show/Hide Outline

Wind's variation with locale, altitude & time
        Wind's energy and power
        Implications for all wind turbine designs / Implications for wind farm location & layout
Aero 101: DRAG (exploited in Savonius vertical axis wind turbine - VAWT)
                 LIFT (exploited in Danish horizontal axis wind turbine - HAWT & Darrieus VAWT)
                 How their use of lift & drag explain and limit performance of these turbines
Aero 201: Bernoulli's Equation / Betz's Limit on Lift + Drag turbines / Limit on pure Drag Turbines
"Anyone can make a working wind turbine, the problem is KEEPING it working!"
        Aerospace failures vs. the farm machinery company now supplying the world with turbines:
                Shared & verified performance data driving use of robust & standardized components
                The hard-luck lessons about failsafe turbine over-speed protection
Leading to the Danish turbine's current supremacy and ongoing trends in its deployment

Wind Power - Part II (resources webpage) - Coming late September 2018

Show/Hide Outline

Offshore Wind Power: The potential rewards / The unique challenges
Wind Power economics: LCOE
Wind Power Return on Energy Invested: EROI
Integrating wind power into the Grid:
    Power conversion, transmission and storage
    The looming threat of Grid instability
        Wind's role in crashing Australia's Grid?
The broader impacts of Wind Power:
    Onshore Wind Power's bird & bat kills
    Offshore Wind Power's effect upon sea life
    Noise
    NIMBY

 Solar Power:

The #5 low-carbon-footprint provider of U.S. electricity (0.9% of total 2016 electricity*)

Part I: Today's Solar Cells (resources webpage) - New Sept 2017

Show/Hide Outline

What is electricity? => The need for "electron pumps"
What is sunlight? How does light interact with various materials
How to make an electron pump (vs. a non-energy-producing "photoconductor")
        Creating free electrons and holes by adding donors & acceptors
        => Electron-pumping interfacial electric fields
Choosing solar cell material to milk the most power from sunlight: The Shockley-Queisser Limit
        Silicon's idiosyncrasies => The impact of "indirect bandgap" & "traps"
         Today's diamond, gold, silver & bronze standards / Record solar cell efficiencies
The huge difference between average and peak solar cell power output
Dealing with reflection (why many solar cells appear blue)
Lifetime solar cell energy output vs. lifetime energy input ("EROI")

Part II: Tomorrow's Solar Cells (resources webpage)

Show/Hide Outline

How we might beat the S-Q limit of ~30% solar cell efficiency:
        Tandem cells combining cells of different materials
        Quantum Dot cells combing differently sized nano structures
How we might build much less expensive cells:
        Thin film PV cells including perovskites and dyes
How we might instead transform the sun's spectrum to match the cells:
        Luminescent Solar Concentrators (LSCs) for windows
        Conversion of Waste Heat to electricity via metamaterials

Part III: Solar Thermal Power / Solar Thermal Energy Storage (resources webpage)

Show/Hide Outline

The two types of solar thermal plants:
        Concentrated solar thermal (solar towers) versus
        Distributed solar thermal collectors
Why solar thermal is today's most expensive energy technology
But how solar thermal with built-in energy storage might be a green energy champ:
        Molten salt energy storage
Solar thermal collectors & towers vs. birds & bats

Part IV: Our First Attempts at Affordable Grid-Scale Solar Energy (resources webpage)

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Photovoltaic farms
        Including California's Topaz plant
Concentrated solar thermal plants:
       California's  Ivanpah and questions raised by omission of energy storage, and bird kills
        Versus Nevada's Crescent Dunes with its built-in energy storage
Distributed solar thermal farms
        Including Morocco's Quarzazate

  Exotic Power Technologies (resources webpage)

Show/Hide Outline

Including:
Small potential / Unproven: Flying Wind Turbines
Medium potential / Proven but thus far in only exceptionally favorable locations: Geothermal
Large potential / Unproven and hugely expensive: Orbiting Solar Power Stations
Huge potential / Unproven and still elusive after the better part of a century's R&D: Nuclear Fusion

This earlier class note set provides information about exotic energy technologies (link)

 Electrochemical Energy Storage:

Part I: Today's Batteries (resources webpage)

As seen around the house vs. in electrified transportation vs. for Grid energy storage

Part II: Tomorrow's Batteries / Tomorrow's Fuel Cells (resources webpage)

Show/Hide Outline

ARPA-E's push for cheaper / more efficient / safer batteries including:
"Saltwater" (aqueous hybrid ion) batteries, solid-electrolyte Li batteries & quinone flow batteries

Fuel cell basics
Fuel cells as enabler of a "hydrogen economy" - or least electrified transportation
But only with radical improvement in their surprisingly poor energy storage efficiency

This earlier class note set provides information about batteries & fuel cells (link)

 Nuclear Energy

The #1 low-carbon-footprint provider of U.S. electricity (19.7% of total 2016 electricity*)

Part I: But they blow up! (resources webpage) - Expanded August 2018

Show/Hide Outline

Nuclei: What they contain, how to keep track of this
Fission of abundant U238 vs. rare U235
Use of "moderators" to slow emitted neutrons => Sustained fission chain reactions
       vs. neutron "poisons" and neutron "mirrors"
Chain reactions in bombs vs. chain reactions in nuclear reactors
Common "light water" moderated reactors:
       Boiling Water Reactors (BWR) vs. Pressurized Water Reactors
As opposed to carbon moderated RBMK reactors
The Accidents:
       Three Mile Island
       Chernobyl Accident
       Fukushima Dai Ichi
The claim that massive use of concrete negates nuclear's ~ zero greenhouse emission

Part II: Prehistoric Nuclear Reactors? (resources webpage) - Rewritten Aug 2017

Part III: Gen III / III+ Reactors: Confronting Cost & Operational Safety (resources webpage)

AP-1000 / ES-BWR / Small Modular Reactors

Part IV: Gen IV Reactors: Two Designs that Might Radically Reduce Nuclear Waste (resources webpage)

Liquid Fluorine Thorium Reactor / Traveling Wave Reactor

Part V: A Brief Review of Other Gen IV Reactors (resources webpage)

These earlier class note sets provide information about advanced reactor designs (link1 & link2)

*Historical data on U.S. energy sources are given in my U.S. Energy Production and Consumption web note set:

Show/Hide Enlarged Figure

Technology Comparisons:

 Power Plant Requirements: Land & Water (resources webpage) - Revised Nov 2017

Show/Hide Outline

How much power does a "typical" plant generate? How many plants does the U.S. need?
Calculation of power plant land use for all of the different technologies
       With design goals based on current U.S. power consumption:
              1000 power plants of 1 GW power production capacity
       Leading to table of net land use if each technology produced ALL of U.S. power
Calculation of power plant water use for all of the different technologies
       Water for 100% use of biofuel power is likely ~ ALL available fresh water
              With portion returned to rivers often polluted by agricultural chemicals
       Water for 100% steam-driven power plants ~ 2X Mississippi River
              But almost all of that water is returned to rivers "polluted" only by warming
       Minimal water consumption for solar PV, some solar thermal, wind and OCGT natural gas

 Power Plant Requirements: Minerals & Fuels (resources webpage)

 Lifetime Energy Return on Energy Invested - EROI (resources webpage) - New Oct 2017

Show/Hide Outline

Shortcomings of a purely economic assessment of energy technologies
Energy Payback Time vs. full lifetime energy cycle assessment
Definition and classic papers on Energy Return on (Energy) Invested: EROI
A re-examination of EROI data based on newer/additional data + technological insights
       Dramatic increases in Wind and Nuclear EROIs suggested by their technological evolution
       The murky world of biofuels where good intentions can strongly color EROI evaluation  

 Power Plant Economics: Analysis Techniques & Data (resources webpage) - Updated Sept 2018

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Analysis Techniques: Time value of money + Uniform payment series + Present value
       Worked example of a power plant's lifetime financing
       Application in computing a breakeven Levelized Cost of Energy: LCOE
LCOE data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency: 2011 - 2018
       Analysis of EIA data peculiarities and trends
       Examining the EIA assumption of across-the-board 30 year power plant lifetime
LCOE data from Lazard
Comparison of data from all sources
       Resulting conclusions about present day renewable energy economics
Appendix tables of "U/P", "P/U", "F/P" and "P/F" function values  

Personal Energy Consumption:

 Energy Consumption in Housing - Updated Sept 2018

Show/Hide Outline

Our homes consume over 1/5th of U.S. energy
       90% of which involves producing and moving heat
How that heat is moved:
       CONDUCTION = Transfer of vibrational energy between atoms/molecules
       CONVECTION = Movement of hot atoms/molecules to cooler places
       RADIATION = Flow of energy via electromagnetic waves (e.g., as infrared heat)
Detailed analysis of how each of these mechanisms affect our homes
       And the often simple & cheap things we can do to decrease their impact
Long term energy-saving strategies, including passive solar and smart(er) homes
Versus big savings available NOW via things like "condensing furnaces" and "heat pumps"

 Energy Consumption in Transportation (resources webpage)

 Green(er) Cars & Trucks (resources webpage)

This earlier class note set provides information about energy consumption in transportation (link)

Fitting Round (Renewable) Pegs into Square (Grid) Holes:

 A Renewable Grid: Trying to Get Power When We Need It, Where We Need It (resources webpage)

This earlier class note set disusses integration of renewable energy into the Grid (link)

 A Partial Solution: Massive Energy Storage + Long Distance Power Transmission (resources webpage)

This earlier class note set provides information about power cycles & energy storage (link)

 Smart Grid: Robust/Energy Efficient vs. Hackable Orwellian Nightmare? (resources webpage) - Expanded Dec 2017

Show/Hide Outline

How major U.S. blackouts prompted thinking about a "Smart Resilient Grid"
       And how deregulation has since made the Grid even less reliable
The five elements proposed for such a robust and energy-efficient Grid:
       Sensing trouble: Phasor (phase and frequency) Measurement Units (PMUs)
       Isolating trouble: Local, smart, microprocessor-based sensors & circuit breakers
       Logging & managing trouble: Digital Supervisory Control & Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems
       Communicating trouble: An Intranet linking the whole Grid together
       Controlling demand thereby mitigating trouble: An Advanced Metering Interface (AMI)
The latter involving power companies monitoring and/or controlling your IoT home appliances
       Raising huge security and privacy issues (including hacker/governmental sabotage)
Versus some far less intrusive smart(ish) energy-saving tools & strategies

The Bigger Picture:

 Climatology and Climate Change (resources webpage) - Expanded January 2018

Show/Hide Outline

Inconvenient truths about An Inconvenient Truth?
Paleoclimatology: Gathering climate data spanning millions of years
       Ten thousand years: Dendrochronology (tree rings), radiocarbon dating . . .
       Hundred thousand years: Glacial ice cores . . .
       Million years: Geology, fossils and their isotopic ratios . . .
The recent stark increases in atmospheric gases such as CO2
       vs. a less stark upward trend in temperature
Climate Models: The long, long list of effects & mechanisms that must be included
       Their surprisingly slow incorporation during the 1970's to 1990's
       The 2000's: Supercomputers finally allow for high-resolution worldwide modeling
       The ongoing transition from fitting past data toward accurately predicting future data

 Greenhouse Effect, Carbon Footprint & Sequestration (resources webpage) - Expanded August 2018

Show/Hide Outline

Building a simple "do-it-yourself" model of the Greenhouse Effect based on:
       1 color of sunlight + 1 color of earthlight + 1 greenhouse gas
Which ultimately collapses because: It's all about different colors
       Colors where gas A absorbs & emits vs. colors where gas B absorbs & emits
       Critical colors = Those where earth might radiate away heat (particular infrared colors)
              But is now being thwarted by the addition of new atmospheric gases
Data on gases now accumulating in the atmosphere
       Including now-censored "EPA Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions & Sinks"
Discussion of atmospheric gas sources, especially energy industry sources
       Possibilities of reducing such emissions
              Or of at least "sequestering" those emissions

 Where Do We Go From Here? (Cap & Trade / Carbon Tax?) (resources webpage) - Updated Sept 20187

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Searching for an effective, politician & lobbyist-proof, way of mitigating climate change
Cap & Trade: Affecting industry directly / but me only indirectly
       Its success with acid rain vs. the complexities of applying it to climate change
Carbon Tax: Affecting ALL directly
       What tax rate would be required to produce the desired changes?
              A prediction based on present day energy economics
       What is my personal carbon footprint? => How much tax would I likely pay?
              Household cost as a function of carbon tax rate and your local energy sources
Would this be justified by what economists call the Social Cost of Carbon?
       Their last two decades of research & debate about this cost
              My analysis of their data, incorporating more recent climate modeling

 




 

Older Class Note Sets + Resource Webpages

 

Wk
Dates
Lecture Notes

Resources
Webpage

Lecture Notes
Resources
Webpage
1
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Introduction
Replaced by web notes above (link)

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U.S. Energy Production & Consumption
Replaced by web notes above (link)

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2
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Electric & Magnetic Fields
Replaced by web notes above (link)

Magnetic Induction: Motors, Generators & Transformers
Replaced by web notes above (link)

3
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A Generic Power Plant and Grid
Replaced by web notes above (link)

Fossil Fuels
Replaced by web notes above (link)

Biomass & Biofuel
Replaced by web notes above (link)

4
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Hydro & Wind Power
Replaced by web notes above
(hydro link / wind link)

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5
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6
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Nuclear Power: "But they blow up!"
Replaced by web notes above (link)

Prehistoric Nuclear Reactors?
Replaced by web notes above (link)

Power Plants: Land & Water Requirements
Replaced by web notes above (link)
7
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9
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Power Plants: Economic Analysis
Replaced by web notes above (link)

10
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11
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13
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U.S. Power Consumption: Housing
Replaced by web notes above (link)
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14
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Smart Grid (?)
Replaced by web notes above (link)
Climatology and Climate Change
Replaced by web notes above (link)
15
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Greenhouse Effect, Carbon Footprint & Sequestration
Replaced by web notes above (link)
Where Do We Go from Here?
(Cap & Trade? / Carbon Tax?)
Replaced by web notes above (link)

 




 

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Copyright: John C. Bean